Saturday, 10 January 2009

Initial Reflections On The Institutes Of The Christian Religion

So. John Calvin's 'Insititutes of The Christian Religion' is still being delivered daily to my iPod, and now that we have got beyond the preface, the Calvin and Hobbes version is looking more and more tempting by the day.

I think I should give a bit of background here, since not all my viewers are Northern Irish Presbyterians (more or less the target audience for the above tome), and may not be entirely clear on who we're discussing. John Calvin was a French Theologian during the Protestant Revolution who established the system of Christian theology called Calvinism or Reformed Theology. OK, admittedly I just copied that from Wikipedia, but anyway, the point is that that somehow led to the Presbyterians. And maybe some other denominations (although not Catholic and not Methodist, but beyond that I'm unclear).

Anyway, despite now being (if I must be something) a Methodist, I grew up in a Presbyterian church, so I have the general impression that somewhere along the line I ought to have had some sort of awareness of Calvinism, but I can't think that I ever did. I can think of 2 possible reasons for this.

1. In Sunday School we were tasked every week with learning a verse and a catechism. At this point I should explain that as well as Sunday morning Presbyterianism, I was also sent to the Sunday afternoon Brethren Sunday School where my granny was a teacher; the Brethren version had no catechism, but was both more demanding and more rewarding in terms of verses: you got a stamp on a card for your verse and catechism for the Presbyterians (the stamps, I think, worked a bit like petrol tokens, you could trade them in for prizes once you had enough; I'm not entirely clear since, as we shall soon discover, I never got that far), but you could (and I once did) earn an entire pound for reciting the first chapter of Hebrews for the Brethren.

Anyway, with so many things to learn, and an inclination to do so that hovered around the nonexistent mark, I was usually trying to get my sister (always far too enthusiastic for my tastes) to teach me the verse and catechism on the way in the door, so that I could run up to the teacher, and without pausing for pleasantries, rhyme off the required words (or, in truth, usually some mangled version of them), get my stamp (occasionally) and then promptly forget all about it.

The only catechism I can reliably remember now was the first one, because I remember having such a huge argument with my mother about how dumb it was and how I didn't want to learn dumb stuff that didn't make sense. The catechisms were presented as a series of questions and answers, and, for the record, the first one (from memory) is:
Q. What is man's chief end?
A. Man's chief end is to glorify God
which clearly makes no sense because, while I am not intimately acquainted with the male anatomy, even I know that men have 2 main ends: their head and their feet.

I mention this because I now suspect that the catechism was where the Calvinism came in, and it may be that had I learned it properly, I would now understand The Institutes. It is possible that my sister is listening to the same podcast every day and writing in with suggested improvements.

2. Reason number 2 why I might have escaped Calvinism is to do with the lie of the ecclesiastical land in Ballywalter (where I grew up). Basically, there is a choice of 3 churches (unless you want to go somewhere else (for instance, Millisle) to church, which is considered A Bit Odd and slightly frowned upon):
i. The Brethren hall
ii. The Church of Ireland
iii. The Presbyterian church

The Brethren church has a bit of a 'reputation'; you sort of have to have always gone there in order to go there.

The Church of Ireland is nice enough, but since it's slightly outside the village it's a little bit of an unknown (indeed, I only discovered today, on t'internet, that it has a name - Holy Trinity), it is also a bit cold and has no car park.

For this reason, the default church to go to, unless you have been brought up Brethren or CofI, is the Presbyterian, so the congregation there consists less of committed Calvinist Presbyterians and more of people who like a comfy seat and appreciate the car parking facilities.

Hence, it is not exactly a bastion of Reformed Theology, and this may be why I had never heard of things like the Westminster Confession of Faith (the bedrock of Presbyterianism) until I went to university, where I once encountered it in casual conversation right before deciding I'd got in with the wrong crowd.

Anyhow, as soon as I understand anything Calvin is saying, I shall let you know.

1 comment:

dave bish said...

Two things I love about the start of the Institutes...

1. That's it's an apologetic to the King to protect protestants. That's a cool reason to write theology.

2. We know ourselves as we know God, we know God as we know ourselves - which if I remember right is how the content kicks off. Makes theology worth getting into.